How could Microsoft’s Proposed Browser Ballot be More Effective?

(Note: This is my personal opinion and doesn’t reflect Mozilla’s official position nor any formal statement from Mozilla)

In my post on October 15, I wrote about the European Commission (EC)’s investigation of Microsoft due to its bundling of Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows, which the EC viewed as potentially harming consumer choice and innovation on the web. Microsoft, to appease the EC, proposed that Windows users be presented with a ballot in which they could choose which browser to install. I said at the time, and in a subsequent post, that creating a ballot would not successfully address the EC’s concerns nor provide a good experience to users. However, since the EC seems to be giving Microsoft the go-ahead to design a ballot, it seems that the best we can do is consider how to design a ballot that causes the least amount of harm to users.

Here are two broad principles that are important in ballot design.

Principle 1: A ballot should be clear and simple

A ballot should present the voter with the information they need to make an informed choice, but no more. The verbal and graphic language on the ballot should be organized so that readers follow a consistent path through the ballot’s information.  Many viewing the browser ballot will not be familiar with the browser as a separable element from the operating system, so clear and precise language is vital.

In interaction design, the complexity of a new task can be lessened by leveraging against what the user already knows and expects. For instance, it’s usually best to display the instructions in the top left for western readers, and before the the possible ballot choices (Kimball and Kropf 2002). It is also recommended that the instructions be as close to the first task as possible, because it provides the highest chance that voters will read them (Dillman and Christian 2002 (pdf)).

Other recommendations to make a ballot simple and clear include:

  • Instructions written short and simply, and in an active, affirmative style (Sanders and McCormick 1993)
  • No unnecessary information or clutter around the choices (Niemi and Herrnson 2003)
  • No text smaller than 12pt (Roth 1994), left justification preferred (Dillman 1978), shading and highlighting used to direct the voter’s focus (Kimball and Kropf 2002)
  • Ballot items listed in a single row or column (Darcy and Schneider, 1989). Failure to do this is part of what caused the ballot problems in Florida during the 2004 US Presidential election
  • Enough spacing between lines to highlight groupings of visual elements (Dillman 2000)
  • No ambiguity over which button corresponds to which choice (Kimball and Kropf 2002)

Principle 2: A ballot should be impartial

I wrote in my previous post about how ballot order can influence voters. Another important factor is how much physical space on the ballot each item is designated.

The current design runs into some problems with designated space per item, swayed in favor of IE. For instance, in the current design:

  • The user must double-click on an Internet Explorer icon, labeled “Internet Explorer”, to launch the ballot
  • The ballot appears within Internet Explorer browser chrome
  • Internet Explorer is mentioned repeatedly within the ballot, Bing is shown as the default search engine, and the IE logo appears as a favicon multiple times

The current space allocation for IE is roughly 3.35 times as much as the other browsers.


Current ballot: 3.35 times more space given to IE than the other browsers


Allocation of visual space for each ballot choice

This space that IE occupies in the top left of the ballot is particularly important because it’s where users begin an eye scan of a new page.  As an anonymous source pointed out to me, Microsoft mentions this in their layout guidelines:

“All things being equal, users first look in the upper left corner of a window, scan across the page, and end their scan in the lower right corner.  They tend to ignore the lower left corner.

But in interactive UI, not all things are equal so different UI elements receive different levels of attention. Users tend to look at interactive controls—especially controls in the upper left and center of the window—and prominent text first”

Improving the ballot based on these principles

In summary, the ballot would be improved by being simpler, clearer, and be presented with equal weight to each browser.

Here’s a version similar to the current proposal but with these principles in mind:



Chime in Leave a Comment

  1. I agree that there shouldn’t be any browser chrome while deciding which browser to use, it’s distracting.

    One thing I think I should add though is: the install buttons should all be at the same level.

  2. Dan says:

    I don’t think the IE chrome will appear in the final ballot. Microsoft CANNOT ship IE with Windows AFAIK (except for the rendering engine, which they would need to use, plus many third-party apps make use of it too), so there’s no way for them to do it if they want to.

    It will probably be implemented as an or a .NET app with an embedded WebBrowser control or a similar unmanaged app with the equivalent ActiveX COM control.

    The only thing I really don’t like is that MS seems to be writing all the app descriptions (though I haven’t read anything supporting or denying this). Each vendor should be allowed to write their own tagline.

    Microsoft’s is clearly the best, highlighting the things that are most important (speed, ease of use, security) and that IE has been notorious for LACKING. The other browsers have lame taglines, ranging from Chrome’s “new” to Opera’s grammatically incorrect one, to Safari’s and Firefox’s vague promises to make the web “better”.

    Your descriptions are better. I would leave out the “most popular” bit in IE since MS themselves have already rejected that metric for ordering the browsers. Plus the EU probably wouldn’t like it.

    The rest of them are great, though. Firefox’s “most downloaded” line might also need to be similarly removed to be fair to IE though.

    Having this ballot made by individuals not associated with any of the organizations that make the browsers would also help to encourage fairness, especially in this area.

    The main problem with this balloting scheme though, as another blogger pointed out, is that unless you have your own favorite browser, looking at logos and names and reading a blurb is not going to help you pick a browser.

    A “take each browser for a test drive” feature could be a better way to have the user pick (“We are going to download and install a selection of commonly used web browsers. Each one will open in sequence and you can browse to your favorite sites and try it out. Look for factors that you like or want most in a web browser, such as speed or ease of use. When you are done trying out a browser, take note of its name and how much you liked it. Once you close it, the next one will open. When you have tried all of them you will be given an opportunity to select which one you want to keep on your computer and use as your main web browser.”. Obviously this would avoid installing extra cruft like Apple’s bundleware with Safari such as Bonjour.)

    Unfortunately many people associate the IE logo with “the Internet” and will simply pick it without realizing what the ballot is about. Actually saying this now suddenly makes US presidential elections make more sense… 🙂

  3. Eevee says:

    With how much useful information is in each of those blurbs, they might as well be removed entirely. Every browser is the fastest and safest ever? Somehow I don’t think that will help anyone make an informed choice. The space would be better used by screenshots of the browsers’ chrome, or perhaps brief descriptions from some neutral third party if such a person exists.

  4. +1 Eevee. Bulleted highlights might do a better job, and the text should mark differences between the browsers. Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari don’t even hint to who made them. I love the screenshot idea too (a screenshot of Firefox’s different personas or a picture of Safari’s history viewer speaks volumes).

  5. John says:

    Surely it’s got to be made clear that Internet Explorer is unpinned to people who are receiving the ballot through Windows Update or else it will confuse users? Or are you proposing that Microsoft doesn’t do that and leaves IE pinned for all users?

    Can I presume from your mockup that you have no problem with MS not mentioning how to remove IE?

  6. Simon says:

    This whole affair seems a disaster in the making, if you ask me. What inexperienced user, on seeing *any* variation of this ballot, is going to do anything short of throw their hands in the air, and find a geek to help them? So pointless…

  7. Wilson Lee says:

    Like Dan said, it would be more sensible for Microsoft to implement the Browser Ballot with HTA:

    In fact, if Microsoft does _not_ use HTA (to get rid of the IE chrome), then it could be considered a deliberate intention to expose the user to a familiar set of controls.

  8. Alex Faaborg says:

    I think the winner of the currently proposed ballot will probably be the home button with the most votes, Bing’s votes giving it a strong second place, and votes for the Address bar landing it in third place. I wonder how many Web browsers are even going to rank in the top 5 on this ballot.

  9. Andrew Edmondson says:

    How about arranging the Browsers in alphabetic order on the page. Or reverse order. either way they aren’t likely to change their names just to ensure they are the first one read left-right!

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  15. I absolutely agree with you that there should not be any browser while deciding that which browser can be use,it is confusing.

  16. Looks like everyone is in trouble with the European Union these days (the latest being Google), not just Microsoft!

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  33. In a statement from the European Commission, the Commission confirms that Microsoft has proposed a browser ballot to be included in Windows which would allow users to pick a browser from a pre-determined list. This was the method preferred by the European Commmission to restore browser competition in the marketplace. Under this preferred method, Internet Explorer would ship with Windows, but a browser ballot screen would be included so that users can choose a browser.

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